Years ago I worked with Marion Casey of NYU’s Ireland House to put together a database of Irish-born admissions to the Bellevue Almshouse between 1845 and 1852. At the time, Bellevue was the only place that destitute or sick people in the city of New York could go for relief (this was before quarantine institutions like Ellis Island, and before dedicated hospitals for particular illnesses, like those on then-Blackwell’s, now-Roosevelt Island). We’re returning to the project this summer, to try to find some way to make the nearly 10,000 entries, which include name, profession and reason for admission – fruitful fodder for historians of immigration and public health alike – available to the public.
In the process of starting this work, though, I came across this handy collection of New York city directories from the 17th to 20th centuries. Neat!
As a side project, C and I are trying to put together a curated New York City walk. We’re starting with a public health theme, centered on the story of “typhoid” Mary Mallon, perhaps the most famous silent carrier in American history. It’s easy to see epidemics like typhoid as urban problems, and many health experts throughout history have prescribed a clean air rest cure exactly because the close, airless conditions that are common in cities were thought to be insalubrious. (An aside, at a recent talk at NYU David Oshinsky argued that Roosevelt’s polio might be traced to just such a proscription for clean air. Oshinsky thinks that stress from Congressional hearings about gays in the Navy combined with a vacation that featured vigorous outdoor activity and swimming in the Bay of Fundy made Roosevelt particularly susceptible to the polio virus, which he might have picked up while visiting a boyscout jamboree in 1921.) I came across another counterexample while looking for an organic dairy that would deliver near where I live. In 1894, the New York Times reported a “local epidemic of typhoid fever in Montclair, NJ” that was traced to a Verona milkman named G.W. Gould. There’s no particular revelation here – typhoid can be spread through a number of media and food was historically one of the most common.
Having recently re-worked my statement of teaching philosophy – in which I lay a great deal of emphasis on encouraging students to think of history in terms of human consequences rather than a litany of facts, this article on the Montclair typhoid epidemic served as a nice reminder of the ways in which academic history can intersect in unexpected ways with “real” life – and reminds me how much I want to destabilize the model that deliniates between life in the ivory tower and everything outside of it. The “service learning” concept, which is used by some colleges to encourage their students to “not only learn the practical applications of their studies, [but also to] become actively contributing citizens and community members through the service they perform,” satisfies this need admirably.